The country has made great strides in the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, but much remains to be accomplished, U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL,11) said at a panel discussion on the topic in Darien Monday morning.
July 2 marked 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and natural origin.
"As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and all the steps forward ... we really have to continue to ask ourselves: What are the great civil right struggles that we face today," Foster asked at the talk with community members, held at the Indian Prairie Public Library in DuPage County.
The United States, Foster said, still struggles to ensure all students have access to quality education. Soaring tuition costs, he added, are barriers to higher education for many people and a gender pay gap still remains.
"Environmental justice, making sure voter suppression remains a thing of the past in this country and closing the income inequality gap — these are just some of the issues that I'm focused on," the congressman continued.
Panelist Mario Lambert, DuPage County NAACP branch president, said Monday's meeting to discuss the nation's current civil rights challenges and ways to overcome them was "highly important."
That's because "civil rights becomes ... buried under so many other things that are important," he said. "There's an assumption that we made it, we've arrived, everyone can vote, everyone can get a job, women are working, they have opportunities — and we begin to neglect the gaps," he said. "A lot of those gaps have been reduced a lot from the '50s and '60s, but the gap is still too much for people to endure."
The Civil Rights Act is personal for Foster, whose father was a civil rights lawyer and helped write enforcement language behind the landmark legislation.
"My father was called upon to write what were referred to as the federal guidelines for implementing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act," the congressman said. "These were the detailed rules that said year by year what each of the southern school districts had to do to desegregate their schools in order to qualify for federal funds."
Foster teared up at one point when discussing his father.
"It was his work on the Civil Rights Act, and it was actually reading through his papers after he passed away a few years ago, that I first started thinking about the fundamental question that everyone has to answer, which is 'What fraction of my life should I be spending in service to my fellow man,'" said Foster, a scientist and businessman from Naperville. "For me, the idea of not spending part of my life in service to my fellow man and helping others did not feel right, and that's as much as anything why I decided to turn to public service, and that's why this conversation is important to me."
Here's more from Foster discussing his father and the issue of civil rights:
Foster and community leaders talked about the state of voting rights in America.
"There is a concerted attack on voting rights across communities, across cultures," said Rev. Kevin Bedford, senior pastor of the Progressive Baptist Church in Aurora.
Bedford spoke out against Voter ID laws and other measures being pushed by Republicans across the country that make it harder for people to vote. And panelists, also including representatives from Waubonsee Community College and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Will and Grundy Counties, lamented the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year to strike down criteria in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for determining which states and municipalities must seek federal permission before making changes to their voting system.
"There (are) obviously huge steps backwards" when it comes to voting rights, Foster said. "But there are also steps forward in many states where they've established ... vote-by-mail" systems.
In Illinois, registered voters can cast absentee ballots by mail. Additionally, there are a number of new state voting measures that will take effect for this November's General Election under legislation signed by Gov. Pat Quinn earlier this month. The legislation allows for same-day voter registration, extends in-person early voting hours and removes identification requirements for in-person voting by registered voters. Additionally, the measure increases the time allowed for vote-by-mail applications and expands early and grace period voting throughout the state.
Voting by mail, Foster said, can be a help to minorities who are "holding down two jobs" and who "have a hard time getting to the polls on Tuesday. It's just that simple."
"But in states ... where they introduced a universal vote by mail, what you find is that this barrier is removed," the congressman added.
Bedford, meanwhile, said more needs to be done to make the Voting Rights Act of 1965 relevant to 2014 "to ensure that we still have the same outcome that we wanted" in 1965.
"If we don't do that, we develop potholes over the years, which is what really happened, I think, with the Supreme Court decision," said Bedford, who is also the former Toledo, Ohio NAACP branch president.
Another topic of discussion was the gender pay gap. In Illinois, women make 78 cents for every dollar that a man earns. At the national level, full-time working women are paid 77 cents for every dollar paid to men.
Bedford said it was a "huge disappointment" when Republicans in the Senate blocked advancement of the Paycheck Fairness Act back in April.
"It's almost as if they said women get paid less because they go into lower-paying positions, so that is the logic and rationale" for the gender pay gap, he said of the lawmakers who blocked the bill.
"Well, nothing can be further from the truth. You look at women who are engineers ... You look at women who are physicians, and just down the list ...The only way that you're going to get that kind of [pay] fairness is that we're at a point where legislation has to go forward."
"I think we've got to put more pressure on lawmakers to say, 'Fairness is fairness,'" he added.
Mass incarceration, particularly among young people of color, is a key civil rights challenge of today, panelists agreed.
"The biggest issue facing us right now is the fact that so many privatized prisons are making big money off of our youth that need direction, that need support," Lambert said. "I'm not saying that we should not punish for crime, but the issue is that if a ... young adult is not exposed to resources that will help point them in the right direction, that's a problem.
"We need to outlaw allowing these prisons to be profit centers, because ... it's challenging the ethical fabric of people," he continued. "They're looking to make money off of people going to jail, and I think we need to get rid of that."
Lambert said the DuPage NAACP branch is set to hold a college readiness event for youth on August 23 at Oswego East High School. The event is open to everyone in the Chicagoland area, Lambert said.
"Ultimately, embedded into (the event) is giving the youth an option (to) avoid ... incarceration," he said.